The Religion Virus: Why We Believe in God

In The Selfish Gene (1976) Richard Dawkins proposed the term “meme” as a unit of cultural transmission analogous to the gene, in that both are transmitters of information. The gene’s information is expressed in its DNA as a complete and detailed blueprint, thus utilized by a reproductive cell to construct a fully formed plant or animal.

The meme is also a unit of information, formed in the brains of social animals like us through feelings and thoughts, which are then transmitted by body language and facial cues, as well as through language, both written and spoken.

But unlike genes, memes have no observable physical properties. They reside entirely in the brain’s matrix of feelings and thoughts. Nevertheless, by observing the range of human social behaviors, meme advocates have learned to construct meme taxonomies that explain why messages containing attitudes (like biases), beliefs (like religion), and instructions (like recipes, jokes, or moral codes) can spread like wildfire to “infect” millions of people, or fail to communicate at all.

Given the lack of observable material content, some critics say that meme theory has no basis in science. For example, one researcher, Luis Benitez-Bribiesc, calls the theory a “pseudoscientific dogma” and “a dangerous idea that poses a threat to the serious study of consciousness and cultural evolution.” In the spirit of full disclosure, I am agnostic on this issue and so remain open to the possibility that meme theory can be useful.

In his fascinating book, The Religion Virus, Craig A. James bravely sets out to apply meme theory to an understanding of a subject that preoccupies humanists—the evolution of religion. I believe he succeeds. Even if meme theory has no scientific basis, James shows that it can serve as a practical tool to help explain much in the ways of human civilization, which is the source of behavioral raw material for the social sciences (history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, education theory, etc.)

In James we have a gifted writer who provides a vivid overview about how Western religion evolved from the pre-Israelite polytheists (circa 1800 BCE) to the time of Jesus and beyond to the spread of viral Christianity in the colonial era and to the present day. This is not a heavy-handed scholarly work with too much information for practical-minded humanists. Instead it’s an insightful story, told with the aid of easily understood memes that appeal to our commonsense instincts about the role religion has played in our history. While the author briefly and elegantly explains the power of meme theory (memetics) he mostly writes compelling historical narrative and humanist social critique around a short set of memes that he defines, and that breathe life into how religious ideas propagate for better and for worse.

James describes the evolution of humanity’s attitudes about God and assesses their influence and impact on the social order. He ingeniously applies Dawkins’ proposal of memes as mental constructs that continue to mutate in response to the social environment, analogous to how genetic DNA mutates in response to the changing physical environment. Memes often refer to specific beliefs and attitudes that may start and end in a given person, or that may propagate in the human population much as viruses and bacteria, whether harmful, helpful, or benign until they mutate or die out. For example, in his narrative of the evolution of core religious beliefs from the time of the Abraham myth (circa 1900-1800 BCE) to the time of Jesus, James assigns the following meme names for a progression of religious beliefs and attitudes in the turbulent world of the Greeks, Romans, and Jews that produced Christianity: polytheism; tolerance; general purpose gods; monotheism; intolerance; abstract god; globalization; guilt; heaven and hell; proselytism; and Armageddon.

Having defined a meme taxonomy suitable to his task, James provides a cogent characterization of how people evolved their ideas about a single god who demands absolute loyalty. Examples include ancient Egypt’s Pharaoh Akhenaten, who in the fourteenth century BCE established the worship of a single sun god, a meme that did not survive after his death. The Old Testament story of ancient Israel’s god describes Jehovah as evolving from just one of many gods (circa 1300 BCE) to become the most powerful of gods (circa 700 BCE), and finally to the only God of the universe (circa 450 BCE). James encourages us to probe deeper when he writes:

I hope that I’ve created an anti-religion memeplex, a sort of “inoculation” against the religion virus. The goal, which I share with many atheists, and also many deists and thoughtful members of many of the newer liberal churches, is to clear the ideosphere of the harmful religion viruses that plague modern humankind. By exposing the roots of the religion virus, my hope is to weaken its grip on humanity.

I fully support James’ goal, and have been advocating much the same since I joined the humanist movement. I would stress even further that the religion virus is indeed harmful, in order to remove the appearance of mixed messages regarding humanism’s attitude towards harmless “deists and thoughtful members of many of the newer liberal churches.”

While the book mainly focuses on how religion went viral, in the chapter titled “The Atheist’s Paradox,” James introduces some ideas about why atheism (as a key element of humanism) seems to lag in its viral power. “Atheists might be roughly divided into two groups,” he writes. “The ‘Live and Let Live Atheists’ who feel that religion is misguided but harmless, and the ‘Anti-Religion Atheists’ who believe religion is harmful.” In contemplating why religious faith, if indeed it is useless or destructive, hasn’t gone extinct he offers the following commonsense answer: “It is entirely possible for something to be harmful to the species, or to society, yet still be favored by evolution.”

To which I might add: it’s also possible for something to be beneficial to the species, or to society, yet still be rejected by evolution. It seems to me that both atheist positions, as James defines them, advocate half truths. In effect, James is challenging atheists and the humanist movement to transcend this genuine tension within its ranks. In my view, meaningful dialogue between our two atheist factions must be grounded in a scientific understanding of the history of both religion and atheism and the truths about their shared human nature. I would hope that live-and-let-live atheists rise to denounce the harmful uses of religion, and that their anti-religious counterparts learn to recognize and tolerate truly humanistic religion while focusing their ire on that which actually harms society.

Humanist readers of this book will not only gain important knowledge about how religious and atheist ideas evolve, but will also find the book to be a pleasurable read. Considered carefully, The Religion Virus will motivate fruitful discussions that help the humanist community broadcast increasingly effective memes to atheists in both camps, as well as to deists and liberal church members alike, whose public advocacy is essential to the goal.